The Greek system at W&L creates social pressures that endanger students and run counter to the goals of an educational institution. If the Greek system at W&L proves unable to reform itself, then students must disaffiliate in order to lessen the power of Greek organizations on campus. By reducing the influence of the Greek system at W&L, perhaps even abolishing it, students can transform Washington and Lee University into a more successful institution of higher learning with an inclusive community and healthy campus culture.
Before I defend my assertions above, let me acknowledge that there is a lot of tension on our campus surrounding this issue. Both members of the independent community and participants in the Greek system feel like the other group stereotypes them unfairly, and they feel like the other group is out to get them using the support of the administration. I have contributed to these tensions in many ways I regret.
o I have spoken about “the Greeks” rather than the Greek system, failing to understand that we are all caught in forces beyond our control. I failed to realize that one can critique an institution while still empathizing with the people in it.
o I have described “the Independents” as a monolithic group rather than a collection of unique individuals, contributing to an “us vs them” dynamic that inhibits friendships between Greek and non-Greek students. Treating either group as a uniform bloc rather than treating people as individuals discourages students from pursuing a variety of experiences on campus.
o I have attended fraternity parties. The willingness of independent students to attend Greek hosted parties that we have not paid for increases the opinion among some students that independents are hypocritical moochers who secretly wish they were the kings of campus. In reality, the vast majority of independent students are not envious of students in the Greek system, but many do feel like they are unjustly missing out on elements of campus life because of their decision not to rush. That said, if independent students truly want the moral high ground when critiquing the Greek system, they should stop going to Greek parties entirely.
I lack any moral high ground in this debate. However, I must offer my thoughts because I truly believe W&L would be a better, safer institution without the Greek system. The opinions expressed in this article are based on my observations from my four years at W&L, my conversations with both Greek and non-Greek students, and on the National College Health Assessment’s statistics about student life at W&L.
I. The Unhealthy Pressures
The Greek system at W&L pressures students to value superficial qualities more than their minds. Yes, Greek organizations do have GPA minimums for rushing. However, members of Greek organizations do not see the GPAs of potential recruits, so grades play little to no role in the rush process.
Furthermore, requirements for participating in the Greek system extend far beyond grades. The costs of dues prohibit many lower-income students from joining the Greek system, or they prompt students to disaffiliate later. Some fraternities and sororities have programs to waive certain fees, but these have proven insufficient as students disaffiliate every year due to costs. One former fraternity member told me that there was “a financial stimulus for me leaving Greek life behind. It was simply just not worth going deeper into student loan debt in order to develop bad habits - both physically and mentally.” Indirect costs also inhibit lower-income students. Multiple sororities include “appearance” as one of their evaluation criteria for potential new members, but many students cannot afford the brand-name clothes worn by women in “upper-tier” sororities.
At W&L, parties are the primary social scene. Membership dues enable Greek organizations to be the only groups on campus with enough financial resources to consistently throw parties. Due to the fact that sororities are prohibited from hosting parties, fraternities control the social scene. Consequently, sororities gain social prestige on campus though fraternities’ willingness to mix with them. As a result, Greek organizations evaluate potential new members based on how well they perform at parties and thus create hierarchies based on the body.
For a sizable portion of the student population, parties at W&L serve two purposes: drinking and/or hooking up. Fraternity houses have “sex rooms.” Sororities have GroupMes where members are supposed to change their name to their latest hookup. Fraternities break their national organizations’ policies in order to serve alcohol at parties, and sorority members do the same by keeping alcohol in in their houses. Due to the prevalence of drinking and hooking up at parties, potential new members are evaluated based on their performance in both these activities. They are judged based on who they hook up with and how much they do so because the sexual appeal of the participants is part of what attracts people to parties. The Greek system does not promote a culture of sexual liberation, but rather a culture of sexual commodification.
Social evaluation does not stop after rush. Women in sororities continue to feel pressured to go out, drink, and hook up in order to prove to fraternities that their sorority is good to mix with. Men wonder how they can make their parties desirable for women to attend. No, abolishing the Greek system will not stop the party culture at W&L. But the Greek system puts additional pressure on members to engage in the party culture in order to elevate the social prestige of their fraternity or sorority as well as their own place in the social hierarchy.
The culture of substance abuse and unhealthy sexual pressure at W&L endangers students. The presence of women in male-dominated spaces, like fraternity houses, in environments soaked with alcohol and pressures to hook up creates situations prone to sexual assault. According to the 2018 National College Health Assessment survey of W&L students, 7.8% of W&L men and 25.1% of W&L women enrolled at the time reported experiencing some type of sexual touching without their consent.
Alcohol exacerbates the problem. National studies demonstrate a strong link between alcohol and sexual assault. Specific to W&L, 2.1% of men and 3.4% of women reported that while they were under the influence of alcohol, someone had sex with them without their consent. More broadly, 55.2% of W&L students reported doing something they later regretted while drinking.
Many sorority women have de facto policies, such as staying in groups, in order to mitigate risky situations at fraternity parties, but all it takes is one moment for a student to be placed in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation. The Greek system pressures young sorority members to enter these dangerous environments weekend after weekend in order to increase the prestige of their sorority. The Greek system must be removed in order to create a safer campus.
Sorority women are not the only students put at risk by the Greek system. Living in a fraternity house buffets a young man with the forces of toxic masculinity. Sadly, they learn to compare themselves to other men based on appearance and prowess. Manliness is defined by how much beer a man can drink and how many women will sleep with him. A former member of a fraternity told me, “I would go out multiple times a week (including weekdays!) to get drunk and high because I felt pressured to do so. I had this inexplicable feeling that the only way to be cool was through binge drinking and smoking as much weed as humanly possible as many times a week as possible. Eventually I decided that it was impacting my studies and that I would be much better off without the Greek system being a part of my life.”
Through the nomenclature of the “tiers” of fraternities and sororities, the Greek system clarifies and broadcasts the hierarchy based around party culture. The Greek system encourages students of all genders to compare themselves to people in other fraternities or sororities and to define their worth by how they look, what they wear, and who finds them attractive. The Greek system breeds anxiety and depression in students by robbing them of their sense of self-worth and making them value themselves based on other people’s opinions.
II. The Unclimbable Hierarchy
The Greek system proves especially disempowering to certain identities on campus. For example, LGBTQ+ students struggle to find a place in the heteronormative, binary-gendered structures of the Greek system. Every year, there are stories of LGBTQ+ students kicked out of parties. One such incident occurred in autumn of 2018 and resulted in the transfer of one first-year LGBTQ+ student. Sigma Phi Epsilon, the last fraternity before Sigma Nu that failed to attract enough members to survive, was known as the “notoriously gay frat” before it went under. Additionally, students who for one reason or another choose to abstain from alcohol or sex will struggle socially on a campus where people gain prestige primarily by going out.
Many BIPOC students have detailed, far more effectively than I can, the struggles of fitting into the Greek system at W&L. Many BIPOC students are not even approached by major fraternities and sororities, and many who do successfully rush still feel like outsiders in their predominantly white organizations.
To their credit, the Greek system has become more inclusive in recent years. Multiple fraternities and sororities include LGBTQ+ students and members who do not drink. In both cases, however, these organizations tend to be “lower-tier,” revealing how the social hierarchy at W&L is based around heterosexual sex and alcohol consumption
III. The Detriment to Education
The social hierarchy formalized by the Greek system runs counter to the goals of an educational institution. By structuring social prestige around partying rather than academics, the Greek system incentives students to value going out over making the most of the limited time they have. Partying distracts students from their studies. In the National College Health Assessment, 9.6% of W&L students reported alcohol as a contributor to lower grades.
Professors find it difficult to teach first-year level classes once pledgeship begins during winter term. One professor told me, “First-year students are a delight to teach in fall term. They’re excited about learning and doing as well as they can. But once New Member Education hits in the winter term, a lot of the male students who are pledging aren't able to do as well as they could, either because they're so preoccupied with pledgeship or because they just don't care that much about their classes anymore.”
No professor at W&L thinks that members of Greek organizations are unintelligent or that they do not value their education. The average high school GPA of a student admitted to W&L is 3.96 out of 4.0, so everyone here has stellar academic potential. However, the Greek system creates competition for its members’ precious time (through pledgeship tasks, chapter meetings that members are fined for missing, or mixers and parties). This time could go towards their academics -- think about how much more students could achieve if they were not part of the Greek system.
Some will argue that the Greek system is a part of a well-rounded education because students need to be taught how to socialize and network. According to this view, it is good that some sororities include “personality” as one of their evaluation criteria during recruitment because charm and social skills are highly beneficial in the real world. Networking is a useful skill, but educational institutions must be aspirational as well as pragmatic. W&L should teach students how to build a world based on higher values than “appearance” and “personality.”
Deans will privately say that Washington and Lee should rank as the third best liberal arts college in the nation, after Williams and Amherst, but it does not in part because of peer-evaluations from administrators at similar institutions. Peer-college administrators rank W&L poorly in part because they know the Greek system works against educational flourishment. If W&L wants to fulfill the goals of an institution of higher learning (producing well-educated adults), then it must abolish the institutions that inhibit students’ abilities to learn and perform at their highest academic potentials.
IV. The Benefits of Change
Abolishing the Greek system would help de-gender social relations. It would create a safer environment for women when parties are no longer exclusively in spaces controlled by men, a less toxically masculine environment for men who could hang out more with women outside of party contexts, and a more navigable social scene for LGBTQ+ students. Also, ending the Greek system would likely benefit BIPOC students as the social scene would no longer be structured by predominantly white organizations.
Furthermore, abolishing the Greek system would enable students to devote more time to their studies. Finally, abolishing the Greek system would improve the mental health of students by ending the “tiered” ranking of Greek organizations, lessening the pressure on students to value themselves in relation to other people.
Some will argue that abolishing the Greek system would make problems of sexual assault and alcoholism worse on campus. Many students have lost potential bids due to the inability to keep their cool while drinking. Indeed, the threat of blackballing could in theory serve as a check on alcoholism among first-year students. Also, fraternities and sororities have internal mechanisms to police sexual misconduct that could in theory pick up the slack where university policies fall short. On paper, the Greek system encourages self-policing. If an incident occurs at a party, the university can punish the entire fraternity, so they have a strong incentive to keep all their members in line.
However, the fact that sororities and fraternities consistently violate their national organizations’ requirements regarding alcohol, demonstrates they cannot be trusted to follow their own rules and police themselves. In practice, the Greek system incentivizes members to cover up the misdeeds of their brother or sister because they do not want their entire fraternity or sorority to get punished and lose their place in the social hierarchy.
This article would be unfair if it failed to acknowledge the many good things fraternities and sororities accomplish. Fraternities pride themselves on creating personable, friendly men. The vast majority of men in the Greek system who I have met at W&L have been nothing but polite to me. (I can only speak to my experience as a straight, white man and not to interactions that people with other identities have had with individuals in the Greek system). Greek organizations also provide many students with a feeling of community that anchors them to campus. Many members donate to scholarships to help students in need of financial assistance attend W&L and participate in Greek life.
The question remains then: Can Greek organizations reform themselves to accept a wider diversity of members and put less pressure on members to engage in harmful mindsets and activities? The vast, vast majority of students in the Greek system are good people. Many Greek organizations have frequent conversations about how to be more inclusive.
Unfortunately, the Greek organizations on campus that have reformed to include minority students as well as students who do not drink nor hook up remain at the bottom of the Greek hierarchy. The Greek system as a whole continues to be structured around party culture, and the “lower-tier” groups are still defined by their ability to participate in that culture. Thus, members of more diverse sororities and fraternities still feel pressured to engage in the party culture in order to improve the standing of their group. If the Greek system is to successfully reform itself, then it must reform as a whole system rather than group by group.
However, for the Greek system at W&L to truly be inclusive, every fraternity and sorority would have to take every applicant, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, personality, appearance, or financial resources. Greek organizations would no longer charge dues, which would undermine their ability to consistently throw large parties. Essentially, if the Greek system at W&L ceased to be exclusionary, it would lose all of the features that make the Greek organizations unique from the other mixed-gender, come-one-come-all clubs that exist at W&L. To reform the Greek system is the same as abolishing the Greek system.
Ultimately, much better results could be achieved without the Greek system than with it. Young students can still learn the rules of social politeness and networking without paying exorbitant dues. People can gain a sense of belonging from a community that does not constantly undermine their individual sense of self-worth. Just think about how much greater good could be accomplished if every fraternity and sorority member took the dues they paid to their institution and donated every dollar directly to a local non-profit.
It is unrealistic to expect the administration to simply abolish the Greek system overnight. Even if administrators do dislike it, the most generous donors to W&L remain committed to the Greek system. Therefore, it is up to current students to weaken the power of the Greek system.
The most important thing that individual students can do, starting right now, is disaffiliate. If you have ever felt uncomfortable at a party, disaffiliate. If you have ever gone to your room and cried because of the pressures of rush, disaffiliate. If you have ever worried for the physical or mental health of your brother or sister, then disaffiliate. The connections you gain from your sorority or fraternity, both on campus and with alumni, are not worth the negative effects the Greek system produces on our campus. Your true friends will remain your friends whether or not you are in their sorority or fraternity.
Many W&L students in Greek life say that if they went to a school without such a high percentage of participation in the Greek system, they would not have rushed. By disaffiliating, or refusing to rush at all, you weaken the power of the Greek system to pressure students into unhealthy mindsets and activities.
The Greek system at W&L institutionalizes and creates hierarchies around values and activities that undermine the goals of an educational institution, and it puts students in danger. If we want to create a safer, more educational, more inclusive campus, then we must abolish the Greek system. By disaffiliating, students can make Washington and Lee a better place for academics, for physical and mental health, and for inclusion in the community.